Nelson’s Pickle, first with the news”, Explained.

In a pickle over “Pickle”, about the origin of a much disputed, controversial schooner.

Maritime paintings HMS Pickle
Nelson’s Ubiquitous Pickle

A guide to this painting written by Gordon Frickers © 09.03.97

Nelson’s “Pickle

It is amusing and absorbing to read and appreciate how much confusion and scholarly time surrounds this very small and quietly famous vessel, in particular the mystery of where she was built.

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We have a fair picture of Pickle’s career from her “unofficial” purchase by Admiral Seymour at Curacao to her loss off Cadiz, written up in Further reading on H.M. Schooner “Pickle”, carrying the news of the Battle of Trafalgar .

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Nelson’s Pickle

The following is an hypothesis worth considering.

We think, very probably, ADMIRAL Lord Hugh SEYMOUR whose flagship was “Sans Pariel” a Plymouth based ship, when he was at Plymouth saw “Sting” a fast cutter, not a schooner. Sting may have been offered for sale as smuggling was becoming more risky, and like all admirals of the time was constantly looking out for that sort of relatively cheap vessel to supplement his overstretched frigates.

It seems that the Sting, soon to be Pickle II, was already schooner-rigged when Lord Seymour bought her in after the capture of Curaçoa in 1800.

Robert Dodds, maritime painter
HMS Pickle by Robert Dodd, a detail from his paintings dated to 1805.

There are letters between Seymour and the Admiralty about this at the Warwick CRO and at Kew, eg : “TNA/ADM 2/939. 5th May 1801 … My Lord, I have received and communicated to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter to me of the 31 January last, acquainting me for their Lordships’ Information, that you have entered into Engagements with the agents for paying them the sum of 2500£ for the schooner purchased by you at Curaçoa which you have since employed as a Tender by the name of Sting …”

Nelson later used her in a similar way (see “Trafalgar Dawn” , left side of the painting), so ADMIRAL Lord Hugh SEYMOUR marked her as a possible purchase and bought “Sting” with his own money reclaiming the expense as soon as he figured out a way to do so.

After much research and a recent discovery which further ties the Pickle name to Plymouth, we think it most likely Nelson’s Sting / Pickle was built rather as John Smith, former Chief Librarian, Naval Reference Library, Plymouth, thought, in or near Plymouth as a fine lined fast vessel, very modern for her time.
It is even possible if unlikely there were 2 Sting’s at that time, one a cutter, the other a schooner.
John Smith found no reference to “Sting” building at Plymouth however the records whilst being incomplete clearly show many of that type of vessel built at Plymouth and district, with a tradition of similar names in this port with a noteworthy appetite for improving ship design.
John Smith concluded, Sting was at the time always referred to as a Plymouth ship, the navy based her at Plymouth and “Sting” as described, “a ‘clever, fast schooner, coppered’” (not as a cutter…) was exactly the sort of craft then in vogue in the South West of England.

To have thought of this you (probably) need to be nuts! and live in the Plymouth area, understand the history and activities of the local people, understand how, why and for what for fast cutters were built (e.g.
Luggers were more common, fast, cheaper to build, rig and operate, more robust, but not as quick or close winded), how the port was run and what occupied and motivated smugglers, the Customs and Excise officers and admirals of the time, fun isn’t it?

There is another worthwhile point; by navy tradition Pickle was considered a Plymouth built ship.

The name “Pickle” has been historically used in the Plymouth area as a place name, for example, Picklecombe (“combe” is old English for valley or sheltered place).
Picklecombe is on Mount Edgecombe on the S.W. waterfront on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound about 3 miles from Plymouth town by water or after crossing the Tamar River by way of the Cremell ferry, a brisk ½ hours walk beside Plymouth Sound through picturesque parkland and woods.
A Victorian fort was built at Picklecombe, before that, the place had exactly the sort of sheltered easily accessible beach favoured by west-country boat-builders to build cutters and schooners on the beach, an activity that continued into the 20th century.
At Falmouth, by the entrance to Restronguet Creek you can still see pits where schooners were built on the beaches.
Indeed, Gordon Frickers learnt some of his boatbuilding from men like Sid Yeo who had done exactly that in former years and spoke about it with affection. (see Merchant Sail , e.g. “Rhoda Mary” and “Katie Cluett” ).
Significantly, the bay immediately south of Picklecombe, Cawsand bay is well documented as being a place frequently used by Plymouth smugglers at that period.

Sting” was the sort of name given by West Country men to ships intended for un orthodox use.
Otherwise family or place names were more popular, As a fast cutter, the ship destined to become the schooner “Nelson’s Pickle, first with the news” would have a relatively large crew, maybe 25 in summer, 35 in winter, more if engaged on unusual work.
The cutter Sting was intended to carry high value cargo.
Her rig was too fragile to be popular on the open ocean.
That means it was most likely she was built for “the trade” meaning smuggling French goods, which trade was then very active but gradually being suppressed, hence the demand for faster ships from smugglers.
At that time the windward sailing abilities of cutters was regarded as awesome.

Sting could have gone for sale because it is on record that about 1800 the smugglers of the Plymouth area, in particular nearby Cawsand Bay were being given an increasingly hard time by Customs and Excise officers.

We know, in ignoring Admiralty instructions, ADMIRAL Lord Hugh SEYMOUR purchased Sting when he was at Curacoa, risking Admiralty displeasure, using the age and poor condition of the tender to his flagship “Sans Pariel“, named Pickle, also a Plymouth ship, as his excuse. “Sting” is known to have been renamed “Pickle” and at Plymouth converted to the schooner rig, so it is this Pickle, based on the model at the RN Naval Museum at H M Naval Base, Portsmouth that is subject of our 2 paintings and Prestige Limited Edition prints (see our Print Gallery).
It is accepted that for a while there were 2 Pickle’s operating.
Maybe there were 2 Sting’s? One the “a ‘clever, fast schooner, coppered’” and the other the Plymouth Cutter? Let us know what you think (see Contact Us).

Thus we know; ADMIRAL Lord Hugh SEYMOUR, C in C Jamaica, in defiance of Admiralty instructions, purchased the cutter “Sting” while at Curacoa“.
My source states, the Sting in December 1800 as a replacement for the “Pickle”, tender (P 263 Sailing Navy List) to “Sans Pariel“.

What is not clear is whether Pickle or the Sting was at or near Curacoa.
She seems to have been intended for service as a patrol and despatch vessel, needed before and more after ADMIRAL Lord Hugh SEYMOUR secured the island against French invasion at the request of the Dutch governor, to be under British protection.

Jan 23 1802 The London Gazette stated: “Rear Admiral Montague to Evan Nanpean from Port Royal, 19th Nov 1801.”Armed tender Pickle captured a large Spanish schooner. Pickle was tender to HM Sloop “Curacoa” (Captain Robert Montagro) and was in command of master’s mate Robert Hayes of the “Curacao”, but which Pickle was it, the old Pickle or Sting? You can find our more by visiting “H.M. Schooner “Pickle”, carrying the news of the Battle of Trafalgar “.

It can be noted, Jamaica and Curacoa are a long way from Bermuda, and it does not prove “Sting” was there only that the paper work was made there.
As she was a cutter converted at Plymouth to schooner, we think it unlikely “Nelson’s Pickle” was there.
The vessels that were at Curacao are described as schooners.
Our Sting is documented to have been converted to a schooner rig at Plymouth in 1802.
The cutter was not at that time a safe or economic rig for the open ocean, frequently suffering dismasting.
If you are interested, you can ask to see Gordon Frickers extensive research into British, French, American and Dutch cutters and schooners from 1775 to 1900.

Museum Shipowners Index at the Public Records Office, Kew, London, gives many insights to “Pickle” including the Master’s Log which covers Monday 21st October 1805.
Indecently it confirms the use of topsail and topgallant sail on that day, so she was rigged in the style of a British schooner.
American schooners abandoned the use of square sails.
That makes it slightly more likely our Pickle was a Plymouth ship.

Gordon Frickers., notes dated 09.03.97, revised 08.12.06

Nelson’s Pickle, model

The R.N. Museum Portsmouth model was according to the curator Dr. Colin White, completed in 1968.
The model was commissioned to the museum.
As far as we have been able to tell, no plans of Pickle survive and none of the many paintings she appears in can be considered definitive.

With the kind cooperation of Dr Colin White, then curator of the R.N. Museum Portsmouth, Gordon Frickers was able to photograph the model in detail, for subsequent study and analysis mostly with Peter Goodwin.

The model seems to be based on plans of H.M.S. Haddock, held in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

“H.M.S. Sealark”* ex “USS Fly” is another if slightly larger vessel of similar type and period, therefore also useful in tracing the likely appearance of Pickle (see Fast Sailing Ships, David R. Macgregor), as was the plan by Howard I. Chapelle. “Fly”, a New England vessel, was taken while commerce raiding, in the South West approaches, by H.M.S. Scylla in 1811 and measured at Devonport, Plymouth. (*Length on deck 81’3″ (24.765m), a blockade runner captured in 1811, “Fly” bears a fair resemblance to the replica schooner “Pride of Baltimore” as she appeared in 1996 – Gordon Frickers took a fine set of photographs of Pride of Baltimore sailing at Brest 96).

After very extensive research and in consultation with Peter Goodwin (Curator & keeper of H.M.S. Victory, author & himself an authority on Royal Navy small ships) and Colin White we agreed that with a few minor exceptions, the model represents as likely an appearance of Pickle as we could then reasonably conclude so the paintings “I have urgent dispatches” and “Nelson’s Pickle, first with the news” to the disappointment of the painter, represent the model rather than a state of the art finer lined converted cutter of that time.

Dr Colin White said, the builder specifically asked to remain anonymous.
Colin White and Gordon Frickers believe the model was not intended to be “Pickle“, rather a close representation of a naval schooner of that period.
This is partly because of the inconclusive research available when the model was made and partly because the model is very unlike any smart cutter, as “Sting” was described, of the period.
Significantly, by the late 18th century “smart cutters” were built with finer lines than those of the model.
By the late 18th century a British, American or French cutter represented state of the art windward speed in small ships.
The term cutter was used by sailormen in the same context that Clipper was later in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A cutter required a brave, large & very experienced crew to handle well and keep the mast on-board.
Miss handled cutters were frequently dismasted particularly downwind by rolling their boom into a sea; hence the rig being considered unsuitable for ocean sailing.

The French with a reputation for building fast ships, experimented extensively (I have the records) to resolve the issue and about 1820 abandoned the use of the cutter rig for naval purposes, masts having consistently broken, even when the lower sections from 74 gun ships were used.
The cutter hull shape was evolving from the full bow shape, good for carrying large loads & common since at least the days of Viking longships and roundships towards the knife like bow that culminated in the clipper designs, hence “cutter”, a ship which would in the language of the day “cut along nicely”.

Pickle documented to have been converted from a cutter to the more manageable and easier to sail rig of schooner by the Royal Navy at Devonport docks, Plymouth.

The model does not conform to the description of Pickle; it is though a fine model and good example of a navy schooner of the period.
This was also the view of the RN Museum Curator of Artefacts, Richard Noyce.
In a letter he writes, “From the start, the builder of the model wished to remain anonymous and still is anonymous”.
Unfortunately the plans and other material relating to the building of the model were never recovered by the museum.
Colin White, Curator, stated the builder was a retired Admiral now deceased.

I, Gordon Frickers can personally vouch for the superb quality and superior speed of a good schooner.
At Brest 96, International Festival of the sea, he was privileged to inspect “Pride of Baltimore” in detail, photograph her sailing and saw she was very well handled, repeatedly out sailing all the other Classic boats including in the race from Brest to Dournenez were he saw Pride of Baltimore while he was painting the fleet departing the Port of Brest for Dournenez, in light airs out of 2,500 ships, she clearly sailed 2 or 3 meters to most other craft’s one.

Examples of Maritime Paintings

All the paintings show evidence of being based on what painters would call “stock sketches”.
If you want to know what that means contact us.

Those which include Pickle are numerous and range from work produced when she still existed to that of famous artists like Montague Dawson and distinguished modern artists like Geoff Hunt.

Pickle at Trafalgar” from D. Lyon’s book “Sea Battles in Close Up”.
This print was engraved in 1806.
As with all period work, it should be treated with caution as it is unlikely the artist saw Pickle.
Rather, he used a stock picture of another vessel or model in his possession (a practice that many artists continue today) and that they may have been 25 years out of date and probably not accurate in the first place.
As an example, one can look at the work of J.M.W. Turner, an artist of the very highest repute.
Turner used the same ship models in different paintings repeatedly over many years.
Turner had a collection of ship models in his studio.

By W. McDowell of Pickle off Falmouth E.g. published in “Decision at Trafalgar” by Dudley Pope, courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
This painting illustrates a vessel almost identical to the one shown in the Gardner/Evelyn picture with single topsail, bluff bow, fore castle and poop, scroll head and quarter badge.
Our impression is this was painted from a model of a vessel made 25 years before 1805 and kept by artists.

“News of Trafalgar”, John Bentham-Dinsdale, Pickle off Gibraltar.
Similar to the above slightly more ornate and detailed.

maritime paintings, Nelson
Nelson s Pickle (detail)

 Working on “I have Urgent Dispatches” was the beginning of a very close & exceptional co-operation between Gordon Frickers & Peter Goodwin, historian & keeper of “H.M.S. Victory“, which included Gordon giving Peter a copy of his extensive notes on the history of “Pickle” and Peter including the picture “H.M. Schooner “Pickle”, carrying the news of the Battle of Trafalgar ” in his book The Ships of Trafalgar.

These heritage paintings represent a unique unrepeatable moment in our lives and could only be possible with the unique access to archives and experts given to Gordon Frickers via the letter of introduction from the then Captain of H.M.S. Victory. Gordon Frickers gives his special thanks to all who have so willingly contributed (mostly) freely, time, expertise, experience and made available access to sources, in particular, Col Robin McNish, Peter Goodwin, Jean Paul Cans, Michel Malgorn, Joel and Marie Therese Linquette, Derek Allen, Dr. Colin White, and John Smith.

Nelson’s Pickle, a lively summary of Pickle can be found in “The Ships of Trafalgar” page 154 to 159, by Peter Goodwin, Conway Maritime Press ISBN 1 84486 015 9.
Although we do not entirely agree with Peter Goodwin’s text about Pickle, we think Peter Goodwin is the most dedicated and reliable of researcher, usually objective and consequently the foremost academic authority on this subject.

We remain very interested in the word Pickle in the Plymouth area so would like to hear from anyone with more solid facts to test our very plausible theory, thank you.

Gordon Frickers has produced a series of talks on Nelson and given 10 highly acclaimed 2 hour interactive talks on Nelson as a role model.

His first painting in the Trafalgar series was of the schooner HMS Pickle, entitled “I have urgent dispatches”.

We hope you have enjoyed the above and it goes some way to explaining the worth of this unique painting? Maybe you can contribute more to this debate (see Contact Us)?

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Gordon Frickers is the only marine and maritime artist whose paintings have been honoured by a solo invitation to exhibit 35 paintings in the European Parliament (May 2011).

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Gordon Frickers © 09.03.97, updated 09.09.2023

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